Booths and Clouds
The most distinctive feature of the festival of Sukkot, and the mitzvah from which it derives its name, is the Sukkah, the “booth.” The Torah writes,
You shall dwell in booths for a seven-day period; everyone included in Israel shall dwell in booths: So that your future generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them from the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.
We think of a “booth” today as a place that is quite small and confining. In actuality, a sukkah can be enormous. It is not the size that makes it a sukkah, but the structure’s lack of permanence. The Oral Tradition defines this “booth” as a dwelling place consisting of at least three walls (made of any material) and having a roof made of unprocessed, agricultural products, such as branches and leaves. It is an obligation to live in the Sukkah during the festival of Sukkot. Ideally, one should eat, sleep, relax and socialize in the Sukkah just as one would in his/her home.
The significance of this mitzvah, on the simplest level, is to remind us that God protected and preserved the Jewish people in the desert after He took them out of Egypt. By living in the Sukkah, we reenact this experience.
A broader historical perspective offers us a deeper insight into the meaning of this observance. Passover celebrates the Exodus, which was the physical creation of the Jewish people. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah, our spiritual creation. Sukkot celebrates the remarkable physical survival and continuity of the Jewish people, the result of ongoing and all-encompassing Divine Providence.
Considering Sukkot in this light, some Sages of the Talmud explain that the booths represent not the Jews’ physical dwellings in the desert, but rather, God’s “Clouds of Glory” that surrounded and protected the Jewish people from the time of the Exodus until they reached the Land of Israel.
In this light, Sukkot is understood not simply as a reminder of a specific historical period, but rather as an experience that renews our awareness of God’s relationship to the Jewish people throughout history. The desert symbolizes our exile and wandering, while the clouds represent God’s unceasing protection and care.
The central text of the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), the Zohar, refers to the Sukkah as “the shade of faith.” Sitting in the shade of the Sukkah, the Jewish people understand that they must not place their faith in the walls and roofs of their houses, or in any physical protection they might construct. We have learned through many years of bitter exile that our efforts only offer protection when they are accompanied by God’s Divine Providence protecting us.
Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, notes that the Clouds of Glory left the Jewish people when they sinned at Mt. Sinai by worshipping the Golden Calf. The Clouds did not return until after the Jews repented and were forgiven on Yom Kippur. The Clouds of Glory once again encircled the nation on the 15th day of the month of Tishrei, the first day of Sukkot, which is why Sukkot is celebrated right after Yom Kippur — even though it is related to the Exodus and might be expected to occur soon after Passover. Sukkot demonstrates that God’s love for the Jewish people is just as strong after we sin as it was before we sinned. The Clouds of Glory were returned to us, even though our own actions had caused them to be removed: the bond between God and the Jewish people is eternal.